THE STORY OF EASTLEA: A "FAILING" SCHOOL
(extracted from The Art Of Possibility)
Ben: I was helping the Philharmonia Orchestra of London land a corporate sponsor for one of our concerts, and I approached Arthur Andersen. They turned us down, citing too many other commitments and not enough staff to handle such an event. I made a quick translation in my mind and concluded that they had not seen a strong possibility in the venture. They were not enrolled.
So, when on a subsequent visit I arrived in London and found an invitation to a formal dinner for that very evening from the man who had been in the position of granting or refusing my request, I saw it as an opportunity. However, my suitcase was stranded in Holland, and since I was dressed in jeans and sneakers, I went straight out to Selfridges to buy a complete evening wardrobe.
The dinner conversation turned to the company's involvement in a government-run program to improve a group of schools designated by the Ministry of Education as "failing." As an educator, I am acutely aware that poverty, neglect, and decades of resignation on the part of teachers, families, and administrators can have a devastating effect on children's development. The Newham Project, alias Education Action Zone, was to be launched with the personal involvement of the prime minister the following September. By the end of our dinner, I, who had come to see if I might obtain a sponsorship for my project, found myself fully enrolled in theirs. The dim shape of a collective plan began to emerge. It was suggested that I go to one of the "failing" schools to introduce the students to classical music with the idea that children and teachers alike would come to believe in their own creativity through the metaphor of music. Arthur Andersen would take on the expense of bringing the entire Philharmonia Orchestra to the school for a subsequent session. In addition, they agreed to sponsor two hundred of the students who might choose to attend our concert at the Royal Festival Hall. And, oh yes, in recognition of my participation in this educational initiative, Arthur Andersen offered to fully sponsor the Philharmonia concert.
The Eastlea School is located in the toughest, bleakest section of London's Docklands district, where the pupil population is largely minority. In my initial visit to the school to meet with the administrators, I was surprised to see that all the children were under sixteen. When I asked why this was so, it was explained to me that sixteen is the age at which they are legally able to leave school. Thirty of the children were in wheelchairs with illnesses or congenital conditions as serious as cerebral palsy and spina bifida. Presiding over the whole institution was the irrepressible and indefatigable Maggie Montgomery, headmistress extraordinaire, who enthusiastically welcomed the prospect of the visit of a conductor of some international renown to her school.
We decided on the gym as the only possible location for the first presentation. Maggie admitted that she had never before dared to hold a full school assembly since it would take nearly an hour to seat all eleven hundred students, and their rowdiness was likely to be uncontrollable. She greeted my description of a session two hours long with bemused disbelief, predicting that her teachers would say that fifteen minutes of classical music would be stretching the limit. However, she gave me carte blanche: "Do whatever you think you can do!"
When the day came for my visit, in addition to the kids and teachers, a hundred or so executives and clients from Arthur Andersen swelled the assembled company to over twelve hundred. Television cameras and a crew from the BBC arrived to film the event. This was to be the launching of the Education Action Zone program nationwide.
The Guardian newspaper carried an article that very morning with the blazing headline "Education Action Zone May Fail." And that headline seemed all too prescient at more than a few moments during the two-hour presentation. The teachers were doing their best to keep order, but as I looked out over the whole scene, it seemed as though their efforts at discipline were only increasing the tension and noise level. By the end I remember feeling exhausted and thinking the venture really might be hopeless. "I can't subject the Philharmonia Orchestra to this," I thought. The BBC producer saw my spirits flagging and called out, "Ben, you've just conducted eleven hundred kids singing Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" in German! This is a success!"
Whatever doubts I had were swept away when Maggie sent me a sheaf of poems the students had written for their English class after my visit. We printed one of them in the Philharmonia program book:
He came. We laughed, he played. We listened.
Vibrant, animated and cheerful, as he swept through Lifting the schools atmosphere and Confidence. Excitement Rushing through the whole school (year seven to eleven) From Mozart to Beethoven. People would think that Eastenders like us wouldn't have liked it, but as he Played on his black piano the whole school was Lifted. He spoke of all the good we could achieve.
Even as an underachieving school. He made me realize that Education was so important to everyone, not just the " Intelligent, it's as simple as that!
His influence on our school was phenomanal. [sic]
Thanks Ben for helping me and all of Eastlea Community School.
-Karl Kripps, age 14
I also wrote a letter to the children, a copy of which Maggie gave to each child in the school:
Dear Eastlea students,
I enjoyed our time together and am looking forward to coming back in less than a month. Do you remember I told you about the headline in the newspaper on the very first day of the Newham Project, which said in huge letters: EDUCATION ACTION ZONE MAY FAIL? I pointed that out as an example of "downward spiral" thinking. And, sure enough, the day after our session the newspaper carried an article by a woman who had been present and wrote that she thought it was a pretty hopeless situation; that Arthur Andersen was wasting its money trying to help schools. "Downward spiraling" is everywhere about us and it is so easy to fall into the habit of thinking that way.
I confess that I too had my doubts, but my assessment of the situation was quite different: it was the first time the whole school had been together in the Sports Hall. Getting you all in was a miracle of organization on the part of your teachers, with your own good-humored cooperation. You sat quietly for a long time before it began and then sang, laughed, and listened while a wild man roamed around on a stage for nearly two hours. At the end, after you had roared a lusty "Happy Birthday" to Jermain, sung Beethoven's Ninth in German, and followed an analysis of a Chopin prelude, you gave your total attention to a piece of music by Mozart played on the piano. WOW Not bad! I say.
Was it perfect? No! Was it as quiet as it could have been? No.' Did I keep everyone's attention all the time? No! HOW FASCINATING.' It was a great start!
Now we will soon have a chance to be together again. This time with a full-size symphony orchestra! I am really excited that you will get to hear their sound, and see what happens when I conduct them. I know you will be touched and delighted and amazed!
Will you give some thought to how it will be possible to keep the hall really quiet while the orchestra is playing, so that everybody can enjoy it and the musicians can play their best? I hope that your truly amazing teachers won't feel that they have to work so hard going up and down the aisles keeping discipline. They love music and want to be able to listen too. Do you think it would work to have them sitting down, just listening, like all of you?
Anyway, I am looking forward so much to being together again to explore the music and have you find out more about how it all works. And I think the people at Arthur Andersen are super to make it all possible. Don't you?
See you on the 22nd of October. And meanwhile, see what happens when you give the people around you an A, not as a judgement, but like a gift.
Warmest love from your friend,
THE PHILHARMONIA ADDS ITS VOICE
As the event involving the Philharmonia Orchestra approached, several people at Arthur Andersen worked intensively and enthusiastically on all the arrangements, while I remained in Boston. A new venue was needed to hold the audience of more than twelve hundred, plus an eighty-piece symphony orchestra. Eventually a huge warehouse was located, and forty buses were hired to transport the children. Chairs had to be brought in, a stage and a platform for television cameras built, and lighting and a sound system installed. The company balked when I requested that a twenty-five-foot movie screen be erected behind the stage so that the children could see the interaction between the conductor and the orchestra. The £2,000 price tag was simply too steep on top of all the other costs, which had now escalated beyond anything they had planned for. But I knew that without that view, half the meaning and interest of the event would be lost. I paid for it myself, and raised £10,000 from the Natwest Bank for the filming.
The youngsters greeted my return with wild enthusiasm, assuring me that the first occasion had not been such a failure after all. Several members of the Philharmonia, who had assumed that the children would be inattentive and restless, looked quite perplexed and became genuinely interested in what I could possibly have done the last time to cause this tumultuous reception. The secret was, I believe, that I genuinely wanted to share the music with the children, and I trusted their ability to respond to it and to be partners with me in our whole undertaking. During the two-hour demonstration, the orchestra, our young guests, and I delved into the high drama of Beethoven's Coriolan Overture, the tender pathos and tragedy of Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet, and Mozart's sparkling Divertimento in D, which he wrote at the age of the oldest children present.
SEVEN VOICES ARE HEARD
But the tour de force was the slow movement of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. I began by having the Philharmonia's cellos play eight bars of a gently undulating accompanying figure. Turning around to the young people, I asked, "How many of you heard the cellos?" Naturally, everybody raised his hand. Then, repeating the same eight-bar passage, I asked the violas to add their voice, identical in rhythm, just two notes, a "third," above. Again a show of hands revealed that everybody could hear the sound of two voices together. Now I asked the audience to listen to the cellos and violas playing the same eight bars, with the added sound of a bassoon and a clarinet playing intermittent short leaps, one octave apart. Raised hands indicated that hearing four separate voices simultaneously held no difficulty for the Eastlea students.
Returning to the beginning of the passage once more, we added the soulful, somber song of the double basses, easy to detect in the dark lower register. All that remained to add were two voices, the second violins and the first violins. When the second violins entered to play their part, I asked the eager listeners for their remarks. "They are too loud," shouted back a confident youngster. Members of the Philharmonia smiled at the coaching they were receiving from this ten-year-old from London's Docklands.
Once these six voices were revealed in perfect balance, I predicted to the children that the first violins would play too loud, because "they think they're so important!" Sure enough, despite
the warning, their entrance blurred the carefully built clarity of the other six voices. The youngsters let them know that all was not well. Goaded by this challenge, the Philharmonia firsts added their running figuration to the texture at an exquisitely delicate dynamic level, and miraculously, all seven voices emerged in clear relief, each one held in effective balance with the other six. The silence in that huge warehouse was profound, as each child strained to hear everything Beethoven had to say.
The final question: "How many of you could hear seven voices?" At least nine hundred hands waved high in the air. "Now wait a minute," I thought to myself, as I looked out over the sea of hands, "who would have predicted this?" But then, who could have predicted any of this-the sponsors, teachers, children, politicians, film crews, musicians-all gathered together to celebrate the indomitability of the human spirit, all highly focused, engaged, and enrolled in the possibility of people succeeding together.
As we arrived at the last movement of the Fifth Symphony, I offered my baton to a few of the children to try their hand at conducting. The four-square, simple grandeur of the Fifth's triumphant opening in C major can easily be performed without a conductor; so the Philharmonia, I knew, would not be pulled off track by the inexperienced flailing of a child. I soon noticed a hyperactive ten-year-old in the eleventh row, moving his whole body with the powerful rhythm of the music, and I brought him on stage. The unselfconscious reaction to the music he exhibited in his seat did not prepare me for the highly energetic, utterly convincing conducting he displayed on the podium. Astonished looks on the faces of the orchestra players made it evident that they were being led, inspired, and energized by this ten-year-old who had never before seen a symphony orchestra.
For a minute and a half on the podium, this young man was a dynamic artistic force with powerful gestures and an ecstatic countenance. A few moments later, he was a small child again, covering his face in embarrassment as his schoolmates roared and stamped their excited response. Happily, a television camera from a local TV station, trained on the screen behind the stage, caught his image in their lens. And that night, on the ten o'clock news, all of Britain saw Anthony conducting the Philharmonia in the finale of Beethoven's Fifth.
AT THE ROYAL FESTIVAL HALL
The following Wednesday, two hundred Eastlea students, scrubbed and dressed in their finest, arrived early at the Festival Hall for the preconcert talk and the concert itself. Michael Rawlings, president of Pizza Hut in America, whose managers I was to address the following month, had eighty pizzas delivered to the Hall. We all saw a short film of the previous week's performance.
Anthony, who had brought his twelve-year-old uncle to the event, watched himself conducting on the TV screen with awe and disbelief.
Now youngsters from Eastlea moved into the hall to hear the preconcert talk. I then spoke for a full fifty minutes, explaining our unusual approach to Beethoven's Fifth Symphony and comparing it with performance traditions. Refreshing the audience's memory of the story, I played parts of Strauss's Don Quixote on the piano to show how skillfully the composer had turned the complex and moving tale into music. "Was that the concert, Miss?" Anthony asked his teacher after my presentation, reminding us how unfamiliar to him were all aspects of this venture.
For the concert itself, the two hundred Eastlea students were placed behind the stage in the prominent seats usually occupied by the chorus, so they would be close to the action. I cannot deny that I had been worried that they might fidget and distract the audience, especially since by the time the concert started they had already been in the hall for over two hours. But they sat motionless and apparently riveted throughout Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, as well as through the long and quite taxing tone poem of Strauss. Could we really know what was going on in the minds of those children? Was fear of punishment the true source of their angelic behavior? Were they really listening to the music, or were they being merely dutiful? I stole a glance at Anthony, sitting high on the risers behind the brass section, at the very moment that the shattering burst of light emerges out of the darkness into the glorious sunlight of the last movement of the Fifth. His moment. Would he recognize it? He gave me a big smile and a thumbs-up.
To think that all of this occurred after Arthur Andersen initially turned us down in our request for the sponsorship of a single Philharmonia concert!
In the end, Arthur Andersen's willingness to be fully enrolled in the transformative power of music served to carry the spark to thousands more, including children whose lives might be pro-
foundly influenced by the event. Here is a note I received just before the final concert, from Graham Walker, a senior partner at Arthur Andersen.
I know there is the all-important last phase of our trilogy to complete, but I wanted to put something down in writing now. The last phase will take you back to your home territory-the concert hall-so we know that will be a magnificent finale.
The first two phases were on more unfamiliar ground! I was crazy to ask you to participate. You were even crazier to agree. And your infectious enthusiasm immediately caused 70 other grown-up musicians to join us in the crazy zone. Fortunately we found a local authority and head teacher who were crazy enough to play ball. The stage was set, the die was cast and yesterday we all shared the full force of your inspiration, creativity and sensitivity-backed up by the unremitting power of the Philharmonia.
Thank you enormously, Ben. Like you, I hope that these events have set in motion enough radiating possibility to overcome the eddies of gloom that sometimes wash around the lives of our friends in Eastlea. Until Tuesday, and with all our best wishes for your rehearsals-
THE LIFE FORCE for humankind is, perhaps, nothing more or less than the passionate energy to connect, express, and communcate. Enrollment is that life force at work, lighting sparks from person to person, scattering light in all directions. Sometimes the sparks ignite a blaze; sometimes they pass quietly, magically, almost imperceptibly, from one to another to another.
As they left, each student received a copy of the CD of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. I could see from the shining light in their eyes that this music had gone deep into these young peoples' souls.